It may be over a quarter of a year away, dear reader, but the Cheltenham Festival is already entering the peripheral vision of our mind's eye.
Unluckily for me, I'm unable to watch the racing (due to time constraints, not technology / geography). Or is it unlucky? You see, the nature of the ante-post betting markets, and indeed human nature itself, is based on overreaction and correction.
I'm sure there's a scientific terminology for it, but what I mean is that when a team loses a match, their odds to win the championship elongate, generally disproportionately to their actual chances. A better example is cricket: when a team loses a wicket, they drift a fair whack straight after the umpire raises a finger to the dismissed batsman.
In golf, when putts are made or missed, odds fluctuate before settling.
My point? The main horses that will contest the Champion Hurdle (and other championship events) at Cheltenham next March need to be at the pinnacle of their performance in four months time. Not now.
So, if a horse is beaten - or wins emphatically - at this stage, we need not be overly worried. For me, I've not had the evidence of my eye or the generally ovine rhetoric of the press to mismanage my punting portfolio.
Rather, I've taken a different view (as I generally do). I started by looking at the performance of Champion Hurdle winners prior to the start of December in the season they won the race. I then went on to review the pick of their previous season form.
The results made very interesting reading, and are reflected below:
|Year||Winner||Best Run Prior To December|
|2009||Punjabi||Debut on 6th December (WON)|
|2008||Katchit||WON Aintree Hcap Hdle|
|2007||Sublimity||Debut on 27th January (WON)|
|2006||Brave Inca||WON Punchestown Hdle (G2)|
|2005||Hardy Eustace||Debut on 14th December (2nd)|
|2004||Hardy Eustace||2nd Navan Hurdle (G2)|
|2003||Rooster Booster||WON Chelt Hcap Hdle (Listed)|
|2002||Hors La Loi III||2nd Ascot Hurdle (G2)|
|2001||No Race||No Race|
|2000||Istabraq||2nd Hattons Grace (G1)|
We can see that no horse had overcome finishing further back than 2nd in their best run prior to December of their Champion Hurdle winning season.
More interesting though is the previous seasonal record of winners:
|Year||Winner||Best Run Season Prior|
|2009||Punjabi||3rd Champion Hurdle (G1)|
|2008||Katchit||WON Triumph Hurdle (G1)|
|2007||Sublimity||4th Supreme Novices Hdle (G1)|
|2006||Brave Inca||3rd Champion Hurdle (G1)|
|2005||Hardy Eustace||WON Champion Hurdle (G1)|
|2004||Hardy Eustace||WON RSA Hurdle (G1)|
|2003||Rooster Booster||WON County Hurdle (G3 Hcap)|
|2002||Hors La Loi III||2nd Kingwell Hurdle (G2)/ 2nd Champion HUrdle 2000|
|2001||No Race||No Race|
|2000||Istabraq||WON Champion Hurdle (G1)|
Here we note that of the nine races run in the last ten years (remember foot and mouth?!), five were won by horses who had won at the previous Cheltenham Festival. Of the remaining four race winners, three placed in the previous Champion Hurdle, and one more was 4th in a Grade 1 at the Festival the year before.
COURSE FORM IS CRITICAL IN THE CHAMPION HURDLE
Let's take this a step further then, and apply it to the horses who won or were close up last year, some of whom are going chasing this season:
|Odds||Supreme Novices||Hurdling or Chasing?|
|Crack Away Jack||Chasing|
|Walkon||Injured New Year at least|
|Mikael D'Haguenet||Going Chasing|
My current view on these is as follows:
|Go Native||Loved Chelt hill and fast ground, generous price|
|Medermit||Same track record as Binocular, 11 times the price|
|Punjabi||Win and 3rd in Champion AND 4th in Triumph say he's sure to run his race again|
|Celestial Halo||Won Triumph, 2nd in Champion. Big shout.|
|Binocular||Two runs at Cheltenham, two defeats, too short!|
|Crack Away Jack|
|Zaynar||1-1 at the track, but tough for 4yo'sâ€¦|
|Mourad||Lots to find on the face of it, throwaway punt?|
|Starluck||Confirmed track liking when hacking up mid-Oct, emerging contender?|
So, I've ruled out the first three in the betting.
Binocular at 7/2 is too short for me. He's yet to win at the track and is likely to find one or two too good again.
Solwhit and Hurricane Fly follow him in the market at around 5/1 each. Neither have ever raced at Cheltenham, something all of the nine above had done (Hors La Loi couldn't run the previous season because of the sheep-burning extravaganza that took place across the nation, but had previously been Champion Hurdle runner up the year before the sheepshank reedemption).
Now at this point, there will be fans of these nags cussing and spitting at their computer screens (or at least mildly agitated). Let me be clear on two points:
1. Because a horse hasn't won the Champion for at least ten years without showing prior good form at the track, it doesn't mean that it cannot be done. It does mean that the odds are stacked against such a feat.
2. There are plenty of races at Cheltenham between now and March for those horses to run in, and prove their affection (or otherwise) for the circuit.
Ok, that over with, let's get back to the hosses (as they say over here - we give these guys a perfectly good language and look what they do to it! Sorry to Unk John and any other US readers!)
Next in the betting, and my idea of the most likely winner at this stage, is 8/1 chance Celestial Halo. Touched off last year, and winner of the Triumph Hurdle the year before, the Halo was in fine fettle when bolting up under top weight in a decent enough contest at Wincanton t'other week.
I can't see him being out of the frame if he gets there in one piece.
Of the others, Punjabi also has an enviable track record and, as the reigning champ, derserves more credit than he might have received to date. Certainly, if you make Binocular a 7/2 shot, Punjabi's fourfold bigger odds (14'sÂ availablewith William Hill) look generous at least.
I make him the pick of the each way value, though suspect that Celestial Halo will reverse the form this time.
Finally, as a longshot poke, Go Native is very interesting. Sure, he's been beaten by Hurricane Fly. Sure, he was disappointing in a Noddy race last time. But he loved the Cheltenham hill and powered up it to touch off Medermit last March. He'll have gas in the tank when many of the others have spun out or run dry. Whether he's close enough to optimally use it remains to be seen. At 33/1 in various places (45/1 Betfair), he's a great longshot wager for the race.
Whatever you fancy, make sure it's got course form, ideally at the Festival.
I'm now on the West Coast again, having spent time in Reno, Lake Tahoe, and Yosemite. Last night was crazy golf and disco ten pin bowling in Santa Cruz (a truly mad place which was very cool for a short space of time but would defeat me within a week); today has seen rain and storms in Monterey.
We'll be off to Cannery Row (of the Steinbeck novel) and the Aquarium tomorrow, before pootling southwards past the Sur's (Little and Big) and down to Hearst Castle. We'll take in the preposterous opulence of William Randolph Hearst, prior to parking up in San Luis Obispo for Saturday night / Sunday.
Then we'll be hitting Santa Barbara and a couple of other destinations as yet undetermined, prior to dropping anchor in San Diego for five weeks. I've got some great stuff planned for the time, which will be a workathon (believe it or not!), despite a location sandwiched twenty paces from Mission Bay on one side, and twenty paces from the Pacific Ocean on the other.
I am really missing you guys and the blog, and can't wait to get back to more regular to and fro in a few days time.